By Melissa Clark
MORE THAN 8,000 trees are being cut down in Scotland to prevent an outbreak of a deadly parasite which threatens to be the new Dutch Elm Disease.
The killer fungal parasite threatens to be on the same scale as the 1970s outbreak, which wiped out almost the entire mature population of elm trees by the 1990s.
Record numbers of new cases of the Phytophora ramorum fungus have been identified in larch trees with the number increasing from just a “handful” in 2011 to 150 this year.
The thousands of trees are currently being felled after the parasite was found to have infected dozens of larches on one estate.
Bell Ingram, a Perth-based forestry and rural land management company, identified the destructive parasite on the estate.
The forestry experts are now managing the felling process to prevent the fungus spreading to the entire crop.
Geoff Brown, Senior Associate in Bell Ingram’s Forestry division, explained that he can offer woodland owners his expert advice on identifying and managing the spread of the fungus.
He said: “The west coast of Scotland is already affected by Phytophthora ramorum which is why we want to raise awareness of it now, so people know what symptoms to look out for and how to minimise the risk of spreading it.
“As larch is a deciduous conifer, it is critical that estate owners arrange to have their crops inspected as soon as possible before the autumn needle drop makes it impossible to identify the infection.
“Although less than 100 trees are infected on the estate, more than 8,000 trees are being felled to contain the disease which gives you an indication to the scale of how infectious the disease is and the precautions we need to take to try and prevent further damage to other forest areas.”
The Forestry Commission has expressed concerns that if preventative measures are not carried out then the UK could see a similar epidemic to the Dutch Elm Disease outbreak in the 1970s, which wiped out virtually the entire mature population of elm trees – 25million – by the 1990s.
Mr Brown explained people need to take care and help prevent accidental transfers of the disease from one woodland to another.
“What a lot of people might not realise is that it can be spread easily through activities like mountain biking and dog walking, as both can involve travelling through different forests with the infection being transferred by footwear or bicycle wheels,” he said.
The destructive parasite has also been reported in Dumfries and Galloway, Mull, Islay, Craignish, south of Oban, Argyll and at the National Trust for Scotland’s Arduaine Garden.
The fungus can spread quickly from tree to tree through the spores transported by the wind.
In the UK, the first larch trees found to be infected were in 2002.
The disease has now progressed through the country with Scotland and Wales thought to be suffering the highest incidences of new infections this year.
Mr Brown added: “Bell Ingram has a number of woodland estates and with the disease being so easily spreadable it is vital that we can offer owners services like these to deal with the infection as quickly and effectively as possible.
“Although larch showing early signs of the disease can still be sold onto sawmills, those sawmills need to be licensed and adhere to strict bio-security procedures which can severely reduce the value of the timber.
“The consequences of the disease to the tree population and the timber industry are potentially devastating, if the pathogens behaviour were to spread to our main commercial species Sitka Spruce.
“Forest visitors need to be aware of the simple steps they can take to prevent infection and woodland owners should be aware of the signs to look out for and seek advice immediately if they have any concerns.”
When a woodland area has been identified as infected, a Statutory Plant Health Notice (SPHN) is served and woodland owners are then required to meet its strict requirements and choose a method of treating the infected site.
The Scottish Government is currently funding a three-year study, which began in 2009, to help examine and help manage any deadly outbreaks in Scottish woodlands.